Sunday, January 20, 2013

Restoring the Altar Rail

Deacon Greg Kandra, who (I suspect) would not identify himself as a "radical traditionalist", offers some thoughts on the restoration of the altar rail in Catholic churches. He's now in favor of it. Here's what he says:
Okay. I've changed my mind. It's time to bring back the altar rail.

Hey, I'm as surprised as anyone else that I feel this way.

Two years ago, I rhapsodized on the Feast of Corpus Christi on the theology behind standing to receive communion, and defended it. And why not? I've received that way for most of my adult life; I even remember the Latin church's experiment with intinction back in the '70s. Standing and in-the-hand always seemed to me sensible, practical and—with proper catechesis—appropriate.

But now, after several years of standing on the other side of the ciborium—first as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, now as a deacon—and watching what goes on, I've had about enough.
Deacon Greg's thinking on the subject reflects my own. At one time, I was a diehard proponent of standing to receive communion. And I did believe that stripping out altar rails was something the Second Vatican Council wanted us to do (it wasn't). It took several years of service as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (aka "Eucharistic Minister") for me to change my mind. Today, I find that more churches are coming to the realization that it was a mistake to take the altar rail out of churches in the wake of the Council. There are churches in Houston where I live who actively use their altar rails. There are other churches around the country who are actually installing new altar rails for active use. (See here and here for a couple of examples). I never thought I would live to see a trend to restore the use of some things that were hastily done away with. It may not be on a large scale, but the times are definitely changing in this regard.

Kandra continues:
The fact is, we fumbling humans need external reminders—whether smells and bells, or postures and gestures—to reinforce what we are doing, direct our attention, and make us get over ourselves. Receiving communion is about something above us, and beyond us. It should transcend what we normally do. But what does it say about the state of our worship and our reception of the Eucharist that it has begun to resemble a trip to the DMV?
His observations are spot on. The altar rail is an architectural detail that developed largely in the West, and as this article points out, its roots can be traced back to the way the earliest Christians worshipped; this is a point of commonality with the East. The altar rail serves a deeply symbolic as well as practical purpose in liturgical worship. I'll be exploring some of this in future posts.

Let me conclude with some additional thoughts by Deacon Greg:
Can kneeling to receive on the tongue help alleviate some of this? Well, it can't hurt. And for this reason: to step up to a communion rail, and kneel, and receive on the tongue, is an act of utter and unabashed humility. In that posture to receive the Body of Christ, you become less so that you can then become more. It requires a submission of will and clear knowledge of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is about to happen to you.

Frankly, we should not only be humbled, but intimidated enough to ask ourselves if we are really spiritually ready to partake of the sacrament. Kneeling means you can't just go up and receive without knowing how it's properly done. It demands not only a sense of focus and purpose, but also something else, something that has eluded our worship for two generations.

It demands a sense of the sacred. It challenges us to kneel before wonder, and bow before grace. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what "Eucharist" really means: thanksgiving.
It's time to bring back the altar rail.


Athanasius Contra Mundum said...

I think much of the problem is that we have gotten away from the old ways like altar rails that reinforce the teachings of the Church in the minds of the faithful. As you pointed out, kneeling and receiving on the tongue are so humbling and out of the ordinary that we are forced to reflect on what its all about. It would an improvement also to start using translations of the Latin hymns, antiphons, etc that have lyrics which teach the faith instead of adopting Protestant songs and songs by Catholics that are watered down to nothing more than praise. Praise of God is a good thing, but praise of God while teaching the faith is much better.

Alan Phipps said...

Yeah, I generally agree... there is a sense of purpose in what we say and do that reinforces what we believe... lex orandi, lex credendi


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